An outstanding woman from a small town of the 1800s
In honor of Woman’s History Month I write today about Maud Showers, a farmer’s daughter from Indiana, born in April of 1863. Her existence was the single biggest surprise I uncovered while researching my book Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University, which will be published later this spring by Indiana University Press. (See http:// www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_i nfo.php?products_id=155680 and also http://www.amazon.com/Showers-Brothers-Furniture-Company-University/dp/0253002036/ ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1)
Showers Brothers furniture company, one of the largest furniture factories in the nation during the first two or three decades of the last century, was located in Bloomington, Indiana. It lasted for nearly 90 years under four generations of family control, and ceased operations in the late 1950s. Thousands of men worked for the various Showers factories over many decades. But over the long passage of time, an important fact was completely forgotten—beginning in 1887, one of the partners at Showers Brothers was a young woman and suffragist, Maud Showers. Married at the age of 16 to one of the three Showers brothers, Maud had no advanced schooling. When her husband died unexpectedly of a fatal bacterial infection caused by tonsillitis, she was only 23, a single mother with three little children. But the day before her husband died he made out a will leaving her his one-third interest in the furniture company. She would remain a full partner for almost 25 years more.
If Maud had been a detriment to the company, her two brothers-in-law, James and William Showers, would have bought her out to get rid of her. Instead, they recognized the fact that she was an outstandingly intelligent person with excellent organizational skills, and they drew up formal partnership papers and welcomed her as their partner, allowing Maud to take the place of her husband with the firm. She remained active with the company for nearly 25 years, and served as vice president on its board of directors when the business incorporated. Maud was an activist and organizer for the cause of women’s suffrage, which in the late 1880s was debated in many states and on a national scale, and she helped bring the famous Susan B. Anthony to town to speak for the cause of women’s suffrage. Maud drew up a petition to the Indiana legislature demanding votes for women and took it to the factory with the request that the workmen sign it (only one refused!). The Equal Suffrage Club to which she belonged was quite large and indicated the progressiveness of the community at that time.
We think of Victorian women as tightly corseted, prone to fainting, physically helpless, and powerless due to the lack of the vote. What I found to be the norm in Bloomington was something completely different: an entire generation of women who worked ceaselessly to relieve hunger, filth, disease, and homelessness. Maud was an indefatigable organizer who went on to help obtain a Carnegie Library for Bloomington. She also organized Bloomington Hospital, funding it largely through a series of public carnivals and bake sales, and she served for the remainder of her life as an officer on its board. Maud and the other Showers women lobbied for improved public hygiene at a time when unpaved roads were covered with horse manure, people burned garbage in their back yards and used privies, and wells provided water that was contaminated by effluvia. She was the only woman member of one of the first development teams in town (The Real Estate Association) and she invested in rental housing, which had always been in short supply until that time in Bloomington. She also served for much of her adult life on the board of directors of Bethany Park, a Chatauqua-like summer camp for grownups run by her church in nearby Martinsville. Maud went on to marry two more times. She traveled widely, including to “the Holy Land” and to California, and she seems never to have stopped to take a breath.
The thing that strikes me most is that although Maud is mentioned constantly and admiringly in the newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s, she was largely unnoticed in her later life as she aged and her obituary omitted much of what she had done in life. All memories of Maud’s business and social accomplishments were forgotten over time by her community and even by her own descendants. Attitudes about the proper sphere for women’s activities devolved during Maud’s life, so that women’s accomplishments of the 1800s were viewed with disapproval by the citizens of the early 1900s. Bear in mind that our entire notion of “the housewife” is a 20th-century construct that bears little reality to the daily life of a Victorian woman. They were indeed expected to raise the children and provide the daily menus, but they were also expected to work outside the home on behalf of their churches and communities to improve the public welfare. They could — and did — function as businesspeople in what we think of as a man’s world (two other Bloomington widows of considerable wealth were also active in business at that same time following the death of their husbands). But this acceptance of women’s activity appears to have suffered a sea change during the early 1900s. Although Showers Brothers hired women workers to do men’s work at the factory during World War I, the company fired them all in 1921, not long after women had finally won the right to vote. Suffrage appears to have triggered a horrible and decades-long nationwide backlash against women’s opportunities. By the 1920s the home was firmly viewed as the proper sphere for women, not manufacturing or business. The emancipated “New Woman” of the 1880s and 1890s was a thing of the past by then, and the nation became the worse for it.
Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” investigated “the problem that has no name” — the vacuity and frustration of being a full-time homemaker. Maud would not have understood that concept, because she never experienced anything like that in her own life. Based on the example of all of the Showers women (not just Maud), the life of Victorian wives was not limited to the four walls of the house but was bounded instead by the entire breadth of the community and the nation beyond. Wherever there was something to be improved, or a need to be filled, these indomitable ladies formed a team to address the problem, rolled up their sleeves and got things accomplished. Maud is a shining example of a Victorian woman from a small town in the Midwest who selflessly used her opportunities and energies to benefit and improve her community.